Letter from Thessaloniki

The Christian Church is founded upon blood — not only the blood of Christ but the blood of the martyrs. Especially in the first three centuries AD, there were many who ended their lives as martyrs. The Great Martyr Demetrius of Thessaloniki, the «Mirovlitis» (the myrrh-scented one) – called thus because of the beautiful scent that emanated from his tomb – was one of them. Born in Thessaloniki in AD 270 (while Christianity was still religio illicita – a forbidden and persecuted religion), he came from a well-off family and became, at a very young age, a high-ranking officer in the Roman army. Yet he became more active as a devout missionary, preaching the Gospel (always secretly) and converting pagans to the Christian faith. Although the Apostle Paul resided for a short time in the city in AD 50 and made Thessaloniki first among Christian communities in Greece, in the days of St Demetrius, a resentful Roman Emperor Maximian ordered that the young officer be sent to prison, subjected to the cruelest tortures and, finally, executed. The factual story provides evidence that this happened not strictly due to the saint’s religious propaganda, but because Demetrius’s follower and friend, Nestor, killed the emperor’s favorite gladiator, the athletic giant Leo (some name him Lyaeus), during a duel. With the martyrdom of Saint Demetrius, the great Christian tradition of the city began to flourish. Thessaloniki became the city of Demetrius and, to this day, a true museum, representative of all the stages of Byzantine religious art. From October 20 to 27, a great festival named Demetria – revived in modern postwar times – took place outside the city’s western walls. Thessalonians still believe that it was due to his saintly intervention that the city was saved during innumerable attacks by mean Slavs, cruel Bulgarians, callous Arabs and others. Even the liberation of Thessaloniki during the Balkan wars of 1912 miraculously coincided with the feast day of Saint Demetrius, on October 26. Yesterday, at a festive liturgy in his church – a monumental five-aisled basilica originally built in AD 313 as a small oratory appropriately situated on St Demetrius Avenue – one could relish well-chanted choir-praises to the soldier-saint: «When you were pierced, you wounded the enemy with your spears, killing him and making him worthless! Deliver us from his malice, Demetrius, making us strong against the tormenting passions with your holy prayers / Piercing our hearts and souls with divine fear, O Holy One! (twice)» Incidentally, most churches in Thessaloniki commemorating St Demetrius Day were fully packed on Saturday and yesterday too. Surprisingly – that is, to those who consider young people to be traditionally the least religious of all – faith is reappearing and thriving for an unlikely crowd of youthful Thessalonians. And this is not just happening in the biggest university city of Greece. Last June, Time magazine published impressive figures on this subject. Among the Danes, the number of 18- to 29-year-olds who professed belief in God leapt from 30 percent in 1981 to 49 percent in 1999. In Italy, the jump was from 75 percent to 87 percent. In Greece, 97 percent of the faithful are baptized into an Orthodox Church which views itself as the proper guardian of our national identity. «The Church’s problem is not that it has a long and great past but that it does not connect with the present,» according to Stelios Ramfos, a prominent modern thinker, in a piece written some time ago in this paper. «Either the Church must be separate from the State and show itself to be a spiritual force for the country’s progress or it will remain at the mercy of anyone with dogmatic, medieval views, as a factor of social stagnation, involving itself in continual conflict with the State.» In short, the Church does not have to change the message but merely the way the message is being put across. In its early days, the Church was distinct and separate from the State. Now, with the ongoing dispute between the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Church of Greece, which is tarnishing the images of both sides in the eyes of the faithful, this separation is being discussed anew. Once again governments are severing ties to the faith that has been inextricably associated with European history since Emperor Constantine looked up into the sky and saw a cross of light in front of the sun with the inscription: «In this sign conquer.» Now as far as our modern (Greek) times go, considering how the most recent «mediation movement» between Athens and Constantinople is widely regarded by the Greek faithful as a great and good event – St Demetrius’s miracle-bringing day might be thought of as a happy occasion. After all, it concerns the election of a new metropolitan for Thessaloniki. Yet, not so. There are fears that conservative pessimism is on the march, and that the saint-warrior may be needed once more to protect the advances that the Church of Greece brought. Christian faith has traveled full circle. Christians today stand far closer to the early Church than their grandfathers did. Now that the traditional alliance between Church and State seems to be coming to an end, will our church leaders follow their example?